Waiting in cashier queues is a frustrating part of shopping, often so irritating that "queue rage" is a new phenomenon sweeping across North America and Europe. Irritation escalates wherever people are delayed by slow-moving cashier lineups.
The resulting phenomenon is very much like road rage, and is especially prominent at supermarket tills.
Despite a prevalence of exasperated shoppers, the physics of queue rage are not well-known. But accumulating anecdotal information suggests tempers readily flare due to lineup disgruntlement.
"Waiting in line is a way of life," said Richard Larson at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "People often spend more than 30 minutes a day queuing."
Researchers conclude most people resent having to line up, and according to Gillian Fuller, that is largely because "queues are a form of control."
In some cases, miscreant behaviour, such as barging into an established queue, can generate hot tempers.
"Queue rage can readily develop if we have to wait in line more than twice the time we expect," said researcher Terry Green.
There are several possible contributing factors that make lining up unpleasant.
"People, often female shoppers, bring their grocery carts to the till, then remember they forgot an item or two and they abandon the cart, holding up a line of other shoppers, while they go and fetch whatever items they forgot," said a head cashier at Fairway Market in Victoria, B.C. "That can hold up a line for several minutes and some people get upset.
"Another frustration seems to stem from the amount of time it takes some female shoppers to take money from their purses to pay for items," she added. "Often they watch items being rung in, then place the purse on the counter, open it up and search for, then remove a wallet or billfold, take out appropriate bills and, while holding the wallet with one hand, with the other hand, search for and take out a coin purse and remove coins, often one by one in a very meticulous and time-consuming fashion.
"Sometimes, those actions are accompanied by idle chit-chat with a cashier, especially if the female shopper happens to have a baby or young child and the cashier is female," she added. "In contrast, male customers seem to be much more efficient and they rarely gab with cashiers."
Some published reports suggest female shoppers can go through up to four times as many individual actions as male shoppers while paying for items at a grocery-store till.
According to a Tim Hortons shift supervisor, indecisive customers are the main reason for frustrations in lineups.
"They don't seem to think about what they want to get until they are actually right at the cashier," she said. "Often, the worst offenders are parents with kids -- because the kids never seem to be able to decide what to order, then often change their minds."
According to a recent New York Times report, research into the physics of lining up has revealed several generalities.
One discovery is that an "express line" is not faster, and is usually slower, than a regular checkout line. That is because each person in a line adds 48 extra seconds to total checkout time, but each extra item adds only 2.8 seconds.
So it is better to add 17 items to a grocery cart than to add one extra person to a checkout line. It usually takes longer to check out more shoppers with fewer items than fewer shoppers with more items.
Other findings include the discovery that young shoppers tend to move faster through checkout lines because their lives are more rushed and they usually have other higher priorities that demand their attention. By contrast, some adult shoppers, especially seniors, consider shopping a sort of social occasion in which banter with clerks and cashiers can be a significant part of the outing.
"For some reason, many seniors, especially women, don't start to reach for their money until the last item has been rung in," said one long-time cashier. "They watch every item being rung in like a hawk, and then, while getting out their money, they often engage in exchanging pleasantries with cashiers, all of which takes extra time."
In fact, such exchanges and setting up items to be rung in takes most of a cashier's time -- only 2.33 hours of a regular eight-hour shift actually involve tendering payments.
Many suggestions have been put forward to present indisputable rules for selecting the fastest-moving checkout line from among several available options in order to minimize frustration.
"I avoid lines with kids at all costs," reported one media commentator. "Parents get distracted and suddenly the kids want something different."
But there are no hard and fast rules, the Fairway Market cashier suggested.
Robert Alison is a zoologist and
freelance writer based in Victoria, B.C.